On a map, they’re barely visible. But zoom in closer on the Azores — a small archipelago of nine islands nearly 1,000 miles off the coast of Portugal — and you’ll find one of Europe’s most fascinating natural landscapes. Colonized by the Portuguese in the 1400s, the Azores are marked by volcanic mountain peaks (the most recent eruption took place in the 1950s) and tiny cobblestone villages. Similar to Iceland or the Falkland Islands in South America, the sheer vastness of the land here is humbling, and perfect for any traveler who enjoys the feel of uncharted territory.
“It’s largely undiscovered,” Luís Nunes, founder of Azores Getaways, told Travel + Leisure. “Visiting the Azores means reconnecting with nature,” he added, “whether that means active volcano and caldera hiking, [visiting] geothermal hot springs, or whale watching and swimming with dolphins.”
Here are a few tips on how to plan the perfect vacation to the Azores.
How to get to the Azores
Perhaps surprisingly, the Azores are incredibly accessible — and also affordable. Though the archipelago is technically part of Europe, its location in the middle of the Atlantic means you’ll spend only half as much time in an airplane to get there. Travelers can get to the Azores in just four hours from Boston, make it an entirely feasible last-minute weekend escape.
Meanwhile, if you already happen to be in Europe, Ponta Delgada International Airport on São Miguel Island is a painless two-hour hop from Lisbon, and just $40 with a low-cost carrier like Easyjet. (Packages are available, too, that allow travelers to hop between several islands on the same trip, with airfare and hotels included.)
How to get around
All nine of the Azorean islands are accessible by plane and by boat. Each island has its own airport, and travel between the other islands is relatively straightforward. While almost every island is linked via ferry service—thus making it possible to cover several, or all, in a single trip—certain routes are only open in the warm season (from May through September). As an example, ferries between the westernmost island of Faial and Terceira only operate during the summer. Others stay active year-round.
When to go
Summer is the most popular time to visit, but mild year-round temperatures mean there’s no “off season” in the Azores. This is a subtropical region, after all. In May, thousands of hydrangeas bloom along the edge of Faial’s mile-wide caldera, earning it the nickname of “the Blue Island.” And when it does cool off, locals are fond of warming up in the bubbling geothermal pools in Furnas Valley, which are known for their skin-nourishing benefits.
See as many islands as possible
Unlike other archipelagos, where the scenery remains consistent across the region, each island in the Azores has a distinct personality. From the lost-in-time village of Corvo (population: 400) to Terceira, whose capital, Angra do Heroismo, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s impossible to pick just one island and not feel like you’re missing out.
Craving adventure? Head to Pico Island, where you can summit a 7,700-foot peak (the highest in Portugal) and tour lush vineyards all in the same day. Need time in the sun? Santa Maria has a golden beach, Praia Formosa, that’s surrounded by steep cliffs. And because it's the southernmost Azorean island, it’s also the warmest.
Swim in Varadouro’s rock pools
Being surrounded by ocean, it’s natural to assume that swimming is a popular activity here. And you’d be right. One of the most unique places to take a dip is Varadouro, a seaside town on Faial island’s western coast famous for its tidal pools. Studding the island's rocky coast, visitors can choose from the dozen or so pools that pock the black basalt rock. They're mostly accessible by ladder.
Follow the hiking paths
Thanks to the islands’ irregular topography and thickly forested mountains, some trails can only be accessed on foot or by donkey. Rocha de Relva, for example, is a seriously remote hiking spot on the southern coast of São Miguel Island. Set amidst private farms and vineyards, the narrow path hugs the side of a cliff as it descends toward the sea, offering staggering ocean views. Along the way, you’ll pass donkeys which are used to haul goods up and down the mountain.